As any hike through the mountains will confirm, different geographies govern wild and urban areas. In the wild, peaks, ridges, and watercourses help us navigate, and as we move through the landscape it's difficult to miss how geologic uplift and erosion have shaped the land. But in the city, a different set of features makes a landscape navigable. The freeways, light rail lines, and the boundaries between neighborhoods tell us where we are. Natural processes are at work in the city as they are in the wild, but the built environment renders them invisible. We see mountains on the horizon, but we risk forgetting entire hills that once rose in the center of the city.
In recent years, Los Angeles has worked to rediscover elements of its lost, wild geography. Activists have transformed the long-neglected Los Angeles River -- once dismissed as a storm channel -- into a 50-mile-long symbol of the promises and frustrations of Southern California environmentalism. In western Los Angeles, scientists, geographers, and other researchers have mapped in precise detail the locations of vernal pools, marshes, meadows, and other wetlands that once dotted the Ballona Creek watershed.
Archives have played a key role in rediscovering another forgotten feature of L.A.'s wild geography: the extensive system of creeks, arroyos, and other watercourses that once flowed through present-day Los Angeles. Fed by springs issuing from vast underground aquifers, storm runoff, or some combination of the two, these streams once crisscrossed the entire city. Today, many of them have suffered a similar fate as the Los Angeles River: paved over, buried and converted into storm drains, or eliminated altogether. Most Angelenos walk or drive over them every day without realizing it.